by Roderick Conway Morris

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Mystery of a Young Girl

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 3 February 1996
Capitoline Museums, Rome
Crepereia Tryphaena's doll, 138-180 AD,
at Centrale Montemartini Museum, Rome



In 1993 a sarcophagus was unearthed at Vallerano on the Via Laurentina in the south of Rome. It contained the remains of a girl of 16-18. Despite her young age, she had been buried - in the second half of the 2nd century AD - with an extraordinary array of exquisitely-fashioned gold necklaces, amulets, rings and cameo brooches, set with emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, amethysts, sardonyx, garnets and other gemstones, amber hair-pins, a large silver hand-mirror, its back decorated with an elaborate high-relief mythological scene, and silver scallop shell that was probably a scented-oil container.

These sensational discoveries have gone on display for the first time in 'The Mystery of a Young Girl', an exhibition at the Accademia Valentino in Piazza Mignanelli (just off Piazza di Spagna), accompanied by a fascinating gathering-together of previous finds from girls' graves of the same epoch, unparalleled in their sumptuousness by any others from the entire Roman period. (The show runs till 18 February, and will then go on to the Palazzo Reale in Milan from mid-March to mid-May, and to Verona in the summer.)

Edward Gibbon in 'The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire' proclaimed the 2nd century AD 'the period in the history of the world during which the human race was most happy and prosperous.'

And the pinnacle of this Golden Age he placed firmly during the rules of Antoninus Pius and his adopted son Marcus Aurelius, author of the famous 'Meditations', whose consecutive reigns were 'possibly the only period in history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government.' These years, spanning 138-180 AD, or soon after, are those from which these unusual graves date.

During this time wars were few and conducted on the remote frontiers of the Empire, the benefits of Roman civilization most visible, and the material well-being of people throughout Rome's vast domains exceptionally high. Luxury goods - silks from China, rare dyes, spices and perfumes from the East Indies, India and Egypt - poured into Rome, provoking the contemporary historian Tacitus to lament the disastrous drain this brought about on the state's gold reserves.

The origins of the Young Girl of Vallerano's precious stones alone offer a revealing glimpse of how, a thousand years before Marco Polo, precious commodities were reaching the West even from distant lands on the edges of the known world: the diamonds in her rings, for example, can now be traced back to India, the sapphires to Sri Lanka and the emeralds to Egypt.

A key point of exchange in this East-West trade was the Syrian oasis-city of Palmyra, which controlled caravan routes to Central Asia and the ports of the Persian Gulf. Palmyran merchants traveled widely, being recorded as far away from home as along the banks of the Danube, in France and in Spain.

Some settled in Rome where, though they lived as naturalized Roman citizens, they clearly retained some of their oriental manners and practices. It was, according to archeologist Alessandro Bedini, who discovered the Vallerano tomb, almost certainly families like these that buried these prematurely-deceased girls in such lavish style.

The first of these distinctive girls' graves came to light in the late 15th century, but all trace of its contents has been lost. In 1889, the sarcophagus of a girl named Crepereia Tryphaena was found with her jewels at Prati di Castello, and another similar burial at Mentana in 1954. Eerily, in this latter case, when her tomb was opened the girl's body, in a white tunic, seemed perfectly preserved under the clear water that filled the sarcophagus. But as soon as the water was removed, her remains disintegrated, leaving not even her bones behind.

In 1964, another rich collection of jewels turned up in the grave of a girl at the 11th kilometer on the Via Cassia. This burial also contained a remarkable ivory doll, of a kind that had already been found in the tombs of Crepereia Tryphaena and in another grave on the Via Valeria in Tivoli (the other contents of which, save for an amber box, have since disappeared).

These dolls, which appear to have originated in Syria, although the ones found in Rome may well have been made locally by emigrant artisans, provide, according to Professor Bedini, compelling evidence both for the dating of the graves and the Palmyran connection. These sophisticated proto-Barbies are anatomically female, with developed hips and busts, artfully provided with articulated joints at the shoulders, elbows, thighs and knees, and were obviously designed to be dressed.

Crepereia Tryphaena's doll is especially interesting not only on account of the sensitive carving of the facial features, but also because her hairstyle, the image of that of Marcus Aurelius's wife Faustina, is shown in a number of representations of the Empress, a lively leader of fashion, who was subsequently, very likely unfairly, accused of fast living and flirtatiousness, and of being not altogether worthy of her Stoic husband (in fact, she bore him at least 13 children).

Along with these dolls have been found minute make-up boxes, combs and tiny mirrors, and in the case of the Via Cassia doll, minuscule gold earrings and a wonderful miniature measuring-spoon, pitcher and scallop shell in amber. The Tivoli doll was recovered still wearing her gold necklace, bracelets and anklets - the last an exotic oriental touch by Roman standards.

Not the least of the 2nd century AD's milder aspects was its new tenderness towards children and interest in their autonomous existence, which is born witness to in the literature of the times. Plutarch, to take but one example, an early herald of this new spirit of sympathy, recalls how his daughter, whom he was inconsolably grief-striken to lose at the age of two, insisted that her nurse give the child's doll milk as well as the child herself.

The evidence so far suggests that the opulent jewels some girls were buried wearing did not have any particular religious significance, but were treasured individual possessions. Valuable jewelry, as far as we know, was regarded by the average Roman as an asset and hedge against misfortune, to be passed on from generation to generation, suggesting that the placing of so much wealth in a child's grave would have been generally regarded as a recklessly flamboyant, even ostentatious, Eastern practice.

Equally mysterious is the presence of the dolls, which were in themselves costly products. It is easy to understand that bereft parents, in any age, might wish to bury a child with its favorite plaything, and that adolescent girls could have retained an affection for such beautiful toys, even after they had reached an age when they were expected, in St Paul's phrase, to 'put away childish things'.

But as Professor Bedini has imaginatively, and by no means implausibly, speculated, the regularity with which these dolls turn up in these burials suggests that they may well also have consciously symbolized the children these girls did not live long enough to bear.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023